Hurricane Harvey, or Katrina II

In August of 2005, the coastlines surrounding New Orleans were devastated by a Category 3 hurricane.  More than 1,800 people were killed in the aftermath.  Most of the deaths were related to the breach of levees in New Orleans.  Though the event took place 12 years ago, the disaster remains an important communication archetype for modern media as they attempt to assist the public in processing the current events of Hurricane Harvey, enveloping communities in and around Houston. 

One of the leading journals of communication recently published an academic essay lauding the excellent response of New Orleans mayor Nagin and decrying the deplorable ineptitude of President Bush during Katrina.

Katrina was an escalating media story built around the premise of "not letting a good crisis go to waste."  Rahm Emanuel, who is now the mayor of Chicago, made this an operational communication thesis in the first term of President Obama when he served as chief of staff. 

In 2005, Katrina's landfall near New Orleans was predicted by experts to lead to more than 10,000 deaths in a city long understood as built below sea level and dependent upon a complex array of levees and flood control pump systems.  Chicago and New Orleans have the dubious distinction of being American murder capitals under their respective mayoral leadership.

The Quarterly Journal of Speech for 2017 commemorates the character assassination of President Bush surrounding Katrina: incompetent, careless, and downright malicious toward black Americans.  The racist thrust of the crisis was embodied by the embarrassing live television observations from Kanye West about the president on an awards show.  FEMA director Browney was excoriated as exceptionally poor at his job, and the vivid depictions of flooding and desperate inhabitants of New Orleans led to a media circus aimed at exposing the political inferiority of President Bush and his administration.  It was political payback to a nation that once again made the wrong choice, according to interpretive elite, in electing a Republican president.  The local military leader charged with New Orleans activities on behalf of the federal government, General Honore, described the media spectacle directed at such partisan ends as "stuck on stupid." 

In fact, the federal response to Katrina was impressive and dramatically life-saving.  In anticipation of the crisis, President Bush and the Navy ordered naval support vehicles to follow Katrina from its initial impact in Florida to New Orleans.  As the storm was rising away to the north, fleets of Blackhawk helicopters from supporting naval vessels swooped into the region and made more than 32,000 rooftop rescues of the New Orleans regions, saving thousands of lives.  On occasion, rescues were suspended when residents began firing on the helicopters in a public statement of defiance.

The ideological exploitation of the crisis that was Katrina was focused upon the apex of a political triangle with blame assigned to President Bush within the national media spectacle, while the lower legs of the local triangle, Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco, both Democrats, were facilitated by national media in shifting blame to the federal government.  This point was commemorated in the ideological piece produced this month in the Quarterly Journal of Speech applauding Nagin's emotional plea of blame on radio against the inaction of the federal government.

Professor Grossman approvingly quotes Paul Krugman: 

The point is that after Katrina the government seemed to have no idea what it was doing; this time (Sandy under Obama) it did. And that's no accident:  the federal government's ability to respond effectively to disaster always collapses when antigovernment Republicans hold the White House, and always recovers when Democrats take it back.

In reality, Nagin and Blanco were decisively indecisive with regard to ordering evacuations and calling up the national guard.  They knew that a partisan media nationally had their backs.  But Blanco was unceremoniously dismissed by Louisiana voters in the next election despite the national media blame game against President Bush.

For President Bush, the Katrina crisis was the beginning of a long, slow grind down from a 45% approval rating to 25% by the fall of 2008.  Up to that point, his popularity had ups and downs typical to American presidencies.  Katrina was an ideological attack designed to serve up an early lame duck.

Today, New Orleans sits on the nervous cusp of hurricane Harvey, hoping to be spared the worst of Houston's flooding rains.  The Democrat mayor of New Orleans is ready and able to speak about and spend money tearing down Confederate monuments built by his ideological predecessors, but he is less sure or assertive about repairing the flood pumps in his city that for over a decade have been studied as needing repair to preserve the city in the event of flooding.  This summer, local officials lied about pumps running at full capacity during previous bouts of flooding.

Today, the Democrat mayor of Houston is actually facing some criticism for refusing to order even limited evacuations of the city in flooding predicted a week ago and widely expected to bring record rainfalls well beyond totals that regularly flood parts of Houston.  The mayor sought to make the same rhetorical plays as Nagin and Blanco by refusing to return the phone calls of Republican governor Greg Abbott.  So far, that cynical ploy is not working to demonize either the Republican president or Republican governor, contra the P.R. assault against President Bush in 2005, re-affirmed by academic scholarship in 2017.  The world of Texas politics even as it relates to natural disasters is quite different from Louisiana politics.  Even the mundane pathological endeavor of looting faces far more grave consequences in Texas than it may face anywhere else in the nation. 

The mediated struggle over the meaning of hurricane Katrina twelve years later is a testament to how the media culture of America has changed for the better.  The ideological forces that seek, from the Alinsky model, to demonize Republicans as wanting innocent people – especially black Americans – to die in disasters are met with more robust ideological resistance that champions the volunteer spirit of America – a testament to her exceptional character. 

The propaganda framing of Katrina as a racist conspiracy is an important chapter of media deception to deconstruct as a nation.  In truth, the successes of the Bush administration in preventing the 10,000 deaths in New Orleans predicted by experts should serve as a marker for current actions.  Rooftop rescues remain a likely need in the days ahead, but that heroic measure is lost in the false memory of President Bush's supposed Katrina failure.  The refusal of Democrat mayors to order even voluntary evacuations from areas of cities they know will flood should be held to public account.  Ideologues need to reconsider the lengths they are willing to go in exploiting tragedies for their own audience inciting benefits as suggested by Alinsky disciples such as Rahm Emanuel.

The media observers do well to report the facts in a way that enables neighbors to love neighbors, by providing for the observed needs.  That is a vital feature of the good nation that is America.  Hopefully, the spirit of America will prevail in the current crisis unfolding in Houston and the region. 

Dr. Ben Voth is an associate professor of corporate communication and public affairs and director of debate and speech programs within the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  He is the Calvin Coolidge Foundation debate fellow.  Professor Voth details the corruption of American media and institutions in a new book with Dr. Robert Denton, Social Fragmentation and the Decline of American Democracy by Palgrave Macmillan.

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